In the February 3, 2014, edition of New York magazine, Jerry Saltz, the publication’s insightful and prolific fine-art critic, ran a compelling article titled “Art at Arm’s Length: A History of the Selfie.” In it, the critic presents four points on what these days seem to be everyone’s favorite pastime.
I found many aspects of this article captivating. However, I was particularly taken with the beginning, under the heading “1. Defining a new form.” In this section, Saltz writes, “We live in the age of the selfie. A fast self-portrait, made with a smartphone’s camera and immediately distributed and inscribed into a network, is an instant visual communication of where we are, what we’re doing, who we think we are, and who we think is watching. Selfies have changed aspects of social interaction…It’s become a new visual genre—a type of self-portraiture formally distinct from all others in history. Selfies have their own structural autonomy. This is a very big deal for art.”
He goes on to discuss what a genre is and how they “arise relatively rarely.” He points out that, “A genre possesses its own formal logic, with tropes and structural wisdom, and lasts a long time, until all the problems it was invented to address have been fully addressed.”
As an artist and writer who cares deeply about the process of creating images, I found the essay to be not just captivating but profound.
Yet I’m sure there are some who might want to debate whether Saltz is correct in his assessment. In fact, some of you may think he’s dead wrong: One person I argued with felt that there was nothing different about shooting self-portraits on a phone or shooting with a camera, other than a smartphone had cellular and wireless connectivity. (And now many cameras have that as well.)
In his view, the phone is merely distributing images more quickly, and he disagreed with Saltz’s characterization of the importance of that feature on its ability to influence the character or nature of the image.
But even if you wholeheartedly disagree with Saltz, I would guess many of you concede that we do, in fact, live “in the age of the selfie.”
And that’s why I’ve compiled a variety of my own self-portraits and selfies from the past few decades to offer some thoughts, as well as useful tips on photographing self-portraits, or, as we now call them, selfies.
How New Technology Lets Us Shoot New Types Of Selfies
As someone who’s tested many digital cameras and smartphones for nearly 15 years, I can say I’ve seen some extraordinary digital-imaging technology introduced into many different devices and gadgets. Some of that tech even allows us to photograph ourselves in new ways.
Of course, today’s camera technology includes significant improvements over cameras even just a few years old, including global enhancements in imaging sensors, lenses, image quality, speed and performance. But there are a few features that I’ve personally found very powerful, particularly for selfies:
- Rugged And Waterproof Cameras: The first that comes to mind is that several camera manufacturers have offered rugged and waterproof models for a number of years, which let you shoot in wet conditions, even underwater (to a specified depth). The image of me you see jumping into a pool was actually shot with a GoPro action cam. If you’ve never shot images (or video) of yourself underwater, you should give it a try. It’s like you’ve entered a whole new universe, with a different sense of light and space. Of course, if you’re looking to immerse your mirrorless or DSLR in the pool or ocean, be sure to carefully research a compatible waterproof housing unit.
- In-Camera Filter And Art Modes: While most photographers might opt to process photos in an image editor to create an illustration type of image, I enjoy shooting and processing on the fly. That’s something that’s now available on all sorts of cameras, from DSLRs to smartphones. For instance, I really enjoy the illustration mode on the Sony RX100 and R10 advanced point-and-shoots. Also, some modes let you quickly produce a black-and-white photo from your file, all in-camera. You’ll have more control in a desktop app, but take a look at your camera’s shooting modes and art filters. They can be fun and open your eyes to new types of self-portraits.
- 360-Degree Selfies: Last year, I gave a one-day workshop at a local college near me on the history and art of creating selfies and self-portraits, starting with the paintings of Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), then discussing the work of artists and photographers such as Man Ray, Robert Mapplethorpe, Chuck Close and Cindy Sherman, and ending with creating selfies on a phone. But the highlight of the workshop was showing the students how to capture a group selfie with a 360-degree camera, like my Samsung Gear 360 VR Camera. (Above is an example of this type of image shot in the middle of the street in New York City.) To show them the versatility of this type of 360-degree image, I imported into a smartphone app and animated the 360-degree still image to play back as a short video. But it’s also the type of photograph that can be used inside of a VR headset, which is an exciting new arena for photography.
- Other Technologies And Features: Be sure to look for features that help your workflow. For instance, a swiveling LCD that swings out to the side can be invaluable in figuring out how to compose your selfie. Also, since most cameras now come with WiFi and Bluetooth, you can hook them up quickly to your mobile device and use your phone or tablet as a remote.
Why It’s Not Always Necessary To Use Tech To Be Creative
But as you can see from the opening image in this article—the one of me holding a magnifying glass in front of part of my face—it’s not always a requirement to have the latest technology when you want to create an interesting selfie.
For example, I’ve always been fascinated with mirrors, reflections and translucent surfaces, in part because I’m always fascinated when I can see my own image reflected on a new surface or material. So, for the opening image, I wanted to create a photo that on a conceptual level reflected my feelings on the nature of photography: To convey the notion that no matter how faithful or distortion-free we believe our interpretation of ourselves to be when we shoot a selfie or self-portrait, there is always some level of alteration, whether it’s how we present ourselves, angle the camera, crop the image or even adjust the exposure. There’s always some level of “spin” in creating an image, including selfies and self-portraits.
Here are some of the other ways I’ve used non-tech methods to create what I believe are intriguing self-portraits:
- Look for interesting or meaningful props to use in your photos.
- Try capturing a selfie in the reflection of a store window. This lets you capture various layers of imagery, including your reflection in the storefront glass as well as the objects on the other side of the window of a store, which can give you an almost surreal effect.
- Change the point-of-view of the camera: Try a bird’s-eye view (looking down) or worm’s-eye view (looking up).
- See if a mirror provides an intriguing composition.
- Move your lighting around to get the most dramatic or intriguing lighting.
Study photographers like Cindy Sherman, Man Ray and others who have created self-portraits.
The New Face of Selfies? Animated 360-Degree Selfies
I captured the 360-degree photos in this video with different 360-degree cameras but used one of the Ricoh Theta mobile apps to animate them. The overly dramatic original music soundtrack was created in Garageband on my iPhone and is kind of a selfie, as well, since I’m rather overly dramatic.